Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 13 July 2019 / 10 Tammuz 5779

Parshat Balak

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Poison of Pe’or: Glorifying Shamefulness

The sin of Pe’or recounted at the end of this week’s parsha is a devastating end to the people’s forty years sojourn in the wilderness. Whereas the sin of the golden calf claimed the life of 3,000, the sin of Pe’or claimed the lives of a staggering 24,000.

The sin of Pe’or comes on the heels of Bilaam’s attempt to curse the people. But after all his valiant attempts, he concedes that his mouth has no power unless endowed so by G-d. Neither the sword of mighty kings like Sichon and Og, nor the curse from a foe from without has the power to harm Israel. Only Israel itself can bring misfortune upon itself by forsaking G-d and His Torah.

The “nation” (am) begins to forsake the faithfulness to moral duty and to give themselves up to the daughters of Moav. Whenever the term “am” is used, it is a derogatory term, contrasted with the use of “Yisrael” which denotes the Jewish People in its honorable and elevated state. After provoking them to sin, the daughters then invite them to their sacrificial feasts, and finally induce them to prostrate themselves before the Pe’or deities.

There were various be’alim — deified powers. The baal tzafan was the midnight god of the desert; the baal ma’on, the god of dwelling places; the baal zevuv, the god of decay, to whom they would turn in times of illness. And there was also the baal p’eor, a god of shamelessness. The worship of this god — by defecation — was to give brazen prominence to the most bestial aspects of human life. In the cult of Pe’or, licentiousness was not considered a sin, but an act of surrender and homage to the power of the gods. In the words of Hoshea the prophet, they came to Baal Pe’or and dedicated themselves to shamefulness.

The poison of Pe’or is illustrative of the type of Darwinism that has infected modern society. When man’s descent to the level of beast is glorified, and man’s Divinely-given nobility is stripped from him, man regards himself as merely a higher species of animal. Negating the shamefulness of Pe’or restores the fundamental conditions of man — his moral freedom and ensuing nobility.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bamidbar 25:1-3

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